Okay, so the idea of eating at upcycled shipping containers is still pretty novel. But this two-month-old cargo container dining enclave deep in the bowels of Punggol, unofficially christened ‘Punggol Container Park’, was packed during dinner. On a weeknight. Sitting along the picturesque Punggol Promenade Riverside Walk within the newly-built Social Entrepreneurship and Eco-Park Development (SEED) @Social Innovation Park, these seven self-order eateries (one of the seven serves only alcohol, which we didn’t feature here) housed in refurbished steel shipping containers sourced from local shipyards are our answer to the similarly styled Artbox in Bangkok and Common Ground in Seoul.
It’s an initiative spearheaded by non-profit organisation, Social Innovation Park Ltd (SIP), to help social entrepreneurs give back to the “marginalised” while feeding the masses — they are encouraged to employ low-income workers, single mums and ex-convicts. Though almost all the container cafes here have air-conditioned seating (up to 20 each), it’s mostly al fresco dining here, so go at night, when it’s cooler. Here’s what to expect.
1. Big Fish Small Fish (8 DAYS PICK!)
#01-K35. Open daily. Noon-10pm Sun-Thur; noon-1am Fri –Sat. Last orders 30 mins before closing.
This cheery self-service fish and chips joint offers six different battered fish, including the standard dory. The owners here used to work in other restaurants as managers before they opened their own joint. Key in your order via the easy-to-use automated system and wait for your number to be called. Your deep-fried fishies are served in a paper cone and topped with house-made potato crisps. You get to pick your choice of four sauces to go with the fish: cheese, salted egg, XO mayo and tartare. They also provide plastic gloves to keep your fingers clean.
Salmon Fish and Chips, $12.90 (8 DAYS PICK!)
Salmon is not a common choice for fish and chips, but it works surprisingly well. The oiliness of the frozen salmon keeps the fish moist within its casing. The batter is also wonderfully crisp and light. Threatening to steal the show are the chips hand-made from US Russet potatoes. Lightly dusted with paprika, they are so thin, naturally sweet and crunchy, you’ll think they came out of a bag. Pair it with the creamy cheese sauce which packs a salty Cheddar punch.
XO Shrimp, $7.90 (8 DAYS PICK!)
Dusted with a thin coating of flour instead of a wet batter, these crispy and succulent grey prawns are full of flavour. Doused in spicy XO mayo sauce, they sit atop a bed of coleslaw. The coolness of the ’slaw against the heat and crunch of the deep-fried shrimp creates a rather nice blend of textures. The only drawback here: the portions are smallish.
Salted Egg Calamari with Bonito Flakes, $7.90 (SKIP THIS!)
While the calamari rings are thankfully not rubbery, its overall salty flavour is forgettable. What it needs is a zing of acidity.
2. Pump Station 1965
#01-K32. Open daily 5pm-1am Mon-Thu; 5pm-2am Fri-Sun. Last orders for mains 9.30pm; tapas 11pm. www.facebook.com/PumpStation1965
Located at the extreme end of the stretch, this bar and bistro is the second F&B venture for Macs Fong, 40 (below). The ex-convict-turned-restaurateur used to run a bistro-bar, before diverting his talents into manufacturing and selling ladies’ shoes. When the retail market took a hit, Max closed shop and returned to F&B as a consultant. Now, after a decade-long break, he’s back in the kitchen again. His retro-inspired joint dishes out an eclectic menu of mains and tapas with a hodgepodge of local, Thai, Chinese and Japanese influences. The all-black cafe is an homage to a bygone era, with décor like an old-school gasoline pump and the shell of a red-and-white Volkswagen Kombi.
Japanese Soya Sesame Wings, $12.90 (8 DAYS PICK!)
Nothing goes better with an icy beer than a side of fried chicken. Marinated in Japanese soya sauce and sesame oil, this salty and fragrant pub staple, with its sexily crisp brown skin and juicy, plump meat, hits all the right spots.
Seafood Spaghetti, $15.90 (SKIP THIS!)
A weird combination that we’re not quite sure what to make of. The “special” homemade dashi broth tastes suspiciously like instant noodle soup mix. The only thing it has going for it is the plump prawns.
3. Leung Kee Healthy Dessert
#01-K34. Open daily 1pm-11pm. Last orders at closing.
This new entrant in the F&B scene uses decades-old recipes for their traditional Chinese desserts. It is co-owned by 29-year-old China-born Singaporean PR, Ge Xin, whose 50 something business partner used to run a dessert chain in Hongkong for 30 years before retiring here. Their 16-seat container offers both hot and cold desserts, which Ge Xin says are “healthier” ’cos they use less sugar and all-natural ingredients. Apart from the ice cream, which is not made in-house, everything else, from the red bean soup to the sherbets are. Desserts are made fresh daily and the quality shows, especially with the hot ones.
Matcha Sherbet, $6.30 (8 DAYS PICK!)
This is similar to Taiwanese shaved ice desserts. The generously portioned shaved ice, a creamy mixture of milk and water perfumed with slightly bitter, flowery Japanese matcha, is oh-so-satisfying. Extra ingredients like the little pearls filled with yoghurt (tastes like Yakult!), aloe vera cubes and lightly sweetened adzuki beans round off this treat perfectly. We just wish it didn’t melt so quickly.
Red Bean Soup, $3.30 (8 DAYS PICK!)
We’re not fans of red bean soup, but we quite enjoyed this one. Cooked over a small flame for over three hours, the beans are luxuriously tender and the broth robustly scented yet light. They’ve also added orange peel, which gives it a zesty and refreshing aftertaste.
Sesame Paste, $3.80 (SKIP THIS!)
This isn’t bad, but it’s too thin-textured for our liking. That being said, the intense fragrance of sesame, which is ground on-site, is unmistakable and unlike anything you’ll get from a packet of instant mix.
4. Seoul Good
#01-K36. Open daily noon-10pm Sun-Thu; noon-1am Fri & Sat. Last orders 30 min before closing. www.facebook.com/Singapore828826/
Get your K-fix here. Don’t be fooled by its signboard, which states ‘coffee and desserts’ (see above pic), Seoul Good serves more than just sweets. Since their launch in February, the first-time F&B owners have expanded the menu to include more hot foods, including Korean-style fried chicken, which is decent, but nothing to shout about. The local bosses say they have been trained in Seoul. They've opted for a space-saving solution by drawing décor items like shelves on their otherwise white-washed interior, making their container one of the more Instagrammable cafés here. Cute.
Strawberry Bingsu, $18.90 (8 DAYS PICK!)
A heaping mound of imported fresh and macerated Korean strawberries sit precariously atop a mountain of light, fluffy yoghurt-flavoured snow. The flavours and textures are incredible. Sweet, tangy and refreshing, this alone makes the trek to Punggol worth it. Good for two, but we’re happy to polish this off alone. Doesn’t hurt that it’s ridiculously photogenic, too.
Myeongdong Chicken Balls with Rice, $9.90 (8 DAYS PICK!)
This bibimbap hits you with wave after wave of intense flavours that will keep you going back for more. And we aren’t even big fans of Korean food. Mix everything together and dig in. The delicate fragrance of the Korean pearl rice is accented by the smokiness of dried seaweed flakes, and the tang of pickled radish and kimchi. Meanwhile, the fiery heat from the tender minced chicken balls coated in chilli sauce creeps in. Talk about explosive.
Savoury Churros, $8.90 for two (SKIP THIS!)
As far as we're concerned, churros should stay in the dessert department. The flavours of both savoury pie-like creations, with a crust made from churros, are fine individually. But the sharpness of the gochujang (hot pepper paste) sauce and the saltiness of the soy doubanjiang (broad bean paste), mingled with the pork and chicken filling, just don't go well with the sweetness of the pastry.
5. L’Chaim Bistro
#01-K37. Open daily, 5pm-midnight. Last orders while stocks last. www.facebook.com/TebingLane
Inspired and emboldened by her friends’ encouragement, ‘Punggolian’ and Peranakan home cook, Amy Lee, who's in her 40s (above), decided it was time to share her culinary skills with strangers. L’Chaim, a Hebrew toast “to life”, is Amy’s first foray into F&B and serves as a showcase for her home-style Peranakan food. The full-time interior designer has hired a chef to cook when she's not free to come down. She offers an ever-rotating menu since it depends on what's freshest in the market, so expect limited quantities of her approximately five dishes a day. What you can depend on, however, is a steady flow of craft beers from Archipelago Brewery, available on tap ($10 a pint; $6 for half). There's also a Beer Tasting Set ($20 for five 100ml glasses). Great for chilling at this tastefully decorated container with soft mood lighting and recycled wine crates for walls.
Curry Chicken Rice, $15.90 (8 DAYS PICK!)
Using freshly-bought kampong chicken, curry leaves from her own garden and a clutch of hand-picked ingredients, the signature dish here is made with a recipe that’s been in her family for five generations. Served with rice or French loaves, the curry is a little thinner than we’d like, but still very aromatic and full-bodied. The chicken meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. Sadly, it's only available every Wednesday, and in small quantities, so you may want to call ahead to reserve this dish. Also, this was only one of two dishes available during our visit, the other being a decent if not show-stopping chicken chop with a Peranakan inspired brown sauce.
6. D’Grill (8 DAYS PICK!)
#01-K38, Tel: 9670-9279. Open daily 5pm-11.30pm Sun-Thu; 5pm-12.30am Fri & Sat. Last orders 30 min before closing.
Wallet-friendly, palate-pleasing grub is the order of the day here. The liveliest and most packed eatery on the strip, D’Grill, as its name suggests, offers mostly grilled seafood cooked in various styles. “It’s like the Silk Road,” says 46-year-old chef-owner, Kiang (above). “You have everything from local dishes to western fare… sometimes all on one plate.” A “former executive chef at a casino restaurant” at Resorts World Sentosa, he also owns and operates Otto Berlin Haus, a “German-style coffeeshop” in Toa Payoh. But he cooks at D'Grill daily. Warning: there’s no indoor dining area here. Instead, the container serves as an open kitchen while diners eat under the stars.
Whole Fish & Chips, $18.90; feeds 2 pax (8 DAYS PICK!)
This is one impressive dish that’s a thrill to order. An entire 400g frozen sea bass, coated in a lightly spiced batter, is deep-fried to a golden crisp and presented in all its petrified glory on a bed of (slightly soggy) truffle salt fries. The ends of the fish are crunchy while the meat in the middle stays succulent. Affectionately called “fish and chips for adults”, it’s a steal at under $20 and lots of fun to eat.
2-in-one BBQ Jumbo Platter, $28 (SKIP THIS!)
We’re in two minds about this hotplate dish, a promotional daily special. We love the signature sambal stingray in it. Grilled on a banana leaf, the fish has a lovely char and smokiness. And we wish we could bottle the aromatic home-made sambal slathered on top — a perfect blend of sweet, sour and spicy. However, the rest of the platter is a let-down. The grilled prawns are okay, but the Australian blue mussels are mushy and the squid rubbery. Order the Grilled Hot Plate Sambal Stingray ($13) instead.
Punggol Container Food Park is at 50 Punggol East, The Seed Park, S82882. www.socialinnovationpark.org/our-work/seed